‘Mac’s Problem’ by Enrique Vila-Matas – The Pleasant and Sometimes Inspired Meanderings of a Literary Sage/Fool

Mac’s Problem’ by Enrique Vila-Matas (2017)  211 pages                  Translated from the Spanish by Margaret Jull Costa and Sophie Hughes

Like several of Enrique Vila-Matas’s previous novels, ‘Mac’s Problem’ is a way-out modernist novel about reading and writing fiction, in this case a group of short stories written decades ago by our narrator Mac’s neighbor in Barcelona. Each short story was based on a famous author from the twentieth century (John Cheever, Djuna Barnes, Raymond Carver, Jorge Luis Borges, Ernest Hemingway, etc.) I won’t go any further into the plot which takes many surprising and wicked turns but would be quite boring if I tried to summarize it.

In this novel, Vila-Matas dispenses literary and philosophical wisdom from a wide variety of sources in an offhand way. I find this technique entirely fascinating, but I’m sure many readers may not take to it. I suppose how you react to this novel will depend on what you think of this first quote that Vila-Matas mentions which is probably the keystone for the entire novel.

As Nathalie Sarraute once said – writing is really an attempt to find out what we would write if we wrote.”

I’m sure some of you will see this quote as meaningless, a tautology. However I find it quite brilliant in its own crazy unique way. So goes this entire novel which is filled with these kind of statements from many persons.

As a writer, Vila-Matas lives for distractions, and sometimes the distractions are the most interesting parts of ‘Mac’s Problem’. For instance, since the narrator of the book of stories that Mac wants to rewrite is a ventriloquist, Mac recalls all the ventriloquists he has encountered in his life. This is a quite amusing distraction.

Occasionally reality intrudes on our fiction writer.

If you ask me, reality doesn’t need anyone to organize it into a plot; it is itself a fascinating, ceaseless creative center. But there are days when reality turns its back on the aimless drifting center that is life and tries to give events a novelish turn.”

Once in a while our narrator even gets down to earth away from his airy fictional concerns, especially when he is dealing with his wife Carmen.

And perhaps the worst thing was not being able to say any of this to my wife, because it would only prove to her that I was already crazier than she already thought I was.”

Sometimes the author can be annoying. First Vila-Matas quotes Schopenhauer saying that the true national characteristic of the Germans was ponderousness. Then Vila-Matas writes his own long ponderous sentence in imitation of the German writers. A reader gets impatient with this sort of tiresome game. This reader also got annoyed with his long summaries of the plot lines of the imagined stories in this collection that he wants to rewrite.

But overall, ‘Mac’s Problem’ is exasperating in a good way.

But we forgive Vila-Matas. He is buoyant; we come back to his pleasant meandering, his strolls around the Coyote neighborhood where he lives.

Like all of Vila-Matas’s works, ‘Mac’s Problem’ is a hit-and-miss affair with plenty of misses, but the hits outweigh the misses so it is well worth reading.


Grade:    B+


6 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve somehow never got round to reading him. What would you recommend as a starter? I like how you identify the annoying aspects as well as the good ones here.

    Liked by 1 person


  2. I think Vila-Matas is a writer I should read at least once so I’ll take your recommendation to Simon under advisement and look at Dublinesque. I recently edited a rather astute review of this book, Mac’s Problem, for 3:AM Magazine and I would say that reviewer had a very similar response to it as you do.

    Liked by 1 person


    • Hi roughghosts,
      I read the review at 3 AM Magazine, and I would agree with the following:
      “Vila-Matas’s prose in Mac’s Problem is, fittingly, a little glummer than usual, lacking some of his typical elegance,…”
      I’ve never written a review of a novel that is as long as that one. It is good to have another source for the more literary novel reviews.

      Liked by 1 person


  3. Another interesting sounding novel from him I agree with dublinesque being best place to start

    Liked by 1 person


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